Frugality and the Idea of Work

This note from Phil left me thinking.

You often talk about “frugality by the hour” and mention the hourly rate for doing something frugal. Like you’ll say that you can earn $12 an hour if you make your own laundry soap.

I think that’s a really poor analogy. When I’m not at work, I don’t want to spend my free time earning more money. I want to spend it having a life. Maybe you enjoy spending your free time making laundry soap, but most people don’t.

The last time I made laundry soap, I literally made it during the commercial breaks while watching Fringe. I boiled the soapy water during a show segment, mixed things during the commercial break, and sat there watching the show while stirring the bucket full of soon-to-be laundry soap. It didn’t really eat up any devoted time at all, and it doesn’t have to for you, either.

Still, Phil brings up an interesting point that I think has more to do with perception than anything else. If you see some sort of frugal tactic broken down to how much you can save per minute or per hour of time invested in the tactic, our minds are drawn both to the reward and to the cost of the method.

Let’s take that laundry soap. If you can save $5 from making a bucket of it and that bucket takes fifteen minutes to prepare, you’re immediately balancing the $5 versus fifteen minutes of your time doing something you might not necessarily enjoy.

For some people, the $5 will be more valuable. For others, the fifteen minutes might be more valuable. It’s a judgment call.

Given that, though, I would suggest considering a few more things when making up your mind about a frugal task.

Can it be done while doing something else? A great example is what I mentioned above with the homemade laundry soap, made while watching Fringe. I would watch Fringe anyway. I just happen to be making homemade laundry soap while doing so, thus the fifteen minutes invested in the laundry soap basically disappears.

Can it be done in a group setting? One thing that I’ve seen families do together is that they’ll spend part of Saturday together working on projects, such as preparing a bunch of meals in advance or doing yard work projects. Not only does this get things done that need to get done, it also provides a great social setting. Have you ever considered spending a Saturday with friends making a bunch of freezer meals?

Can it be done as part of “family time”? For us, that usually means that we can incorporate the kids into the project. Some tasks work well for this and get the kids deeply involved, while others end up being more trouble than they’re worth. I generally find that, at least for our family, garden work goes very well with the involvement of the children, for example.

The idea behind all of this is that for us, frugality is simply a normal part of life. We don’t sit around trying to fill every hour with laborious and boring tasks that enable us to save six cents. That doesn’t benefit anyone.

Instead, we find frugal things that complement what we would already be doing in our life. The fact that it’s a great way to reduce our spending is just a kicker.

When we’re trying to decide what to do as a family, frugality is a part of that equation, but just as important is that it’s something we’ll all enjoy and that our children will get something out of that will help them grow in some fashion. Often, we can find things that do all of this, like working in the garden or making soap in the kitchen.

When we want to spend time with friends, why not spend several hours together making meals in advance or helping each other with projects? It’s a great chance to socialize and to help each other.

When we’re doing something for enjoyment, like watching a television show, is it possible to easily do something else that saves money? Sarah, for example, often crochets while we’re watching a show. I’ll do things like make laundry soap. We’re still doing fun things that we’d do normally, but we’re adding in something that will save us some nickels and dimes along the way.

Frugality isn’t our life. It’s simply something that complements life while opening up opportunities in the future.

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